An Interview with The Godmother of VR

Tyla Mason VR Gifs
2016, it has been said in countless articles, is the year that virtual reality will become mainstream with the release of a number of much-anticipated headsets¬†to enjoy experiences at home. Until recently, the public has only had access to virtual experiences in a very public way – at expos, brand activations or festivals. Programmes offering VR experiences like New Frontier¬†at¬†Sundance Film Festival in January mean it’s often presented in the same space as traditional cinema, which has naturally prompted much discussion and declaration about VR as the future of film. Whether this is the case or not, while storytellers are still figuring how best to use VR, their experiments are breaking new ground. And this innovation is by no means exclusive to the world of movies. VR’s capacity to revolutionise gaming, design, skills training, art, fitness, marketing, therapy, porn and even brain surgery is breathtaking and endless.

Journalism is another industry where VR can have a real impact; where people like journalist and documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Pƒìna are making it an exercise in empathy. Also referred to as ‘the godmother of virtual reality’, De la Pƒìna¬†calls her work ‘immersive journalism’ through which you become a bystander to real life events recreated most potently due to actual sound recordings that lead the visuals.

As CEO of Emblematic Group, De la Pēna releases hard-hitting projects like Use of Force which highlights the dehumanisation of migrants on United States borders. With the help of an eye witness on the scene, Use of Force recreates the night Anastasio Hernandez Rojas was killed by border control. Across the Line is a seven minute experience set outside a Planned Parenthood clinic where actual recordings document the verbal abuse shouted by anti-abortion protestors at women approaching the door. The chilling One Dark Night tells the story of the day teenager Travyon Martin was shot and killed by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, whose acquittal prompted the Black Lives Matter movement. The reenactment was produced exclusively from 911 calls and witness testimony.

These difficult experiences force us to engage, and prompt us to ask ourselves what we’d do in the same situations. They are made in the hope that the emotion they arouse will be directed into awareness and action. We asked¬†De la Pƒìna about VR being used in journalism.

Tyla Mason VR Gifs

“It felt like I’d finally found the medium I’d been searching for all along.”


When did you first realise that VR would be big and that it was something you were really excited to pursue?
I first became interested in VR after visiting the Event Lab at the University of Barcelona run by Mel Slater, who has done really pioneering work in the field. Once I put on a headset for the first time, I was converted. From that point on, I knew that I had to start telling stories in this way. It felt like I’d finally found the medium I’d been searching for all along. All my main interests: in investigative journalism, in technology, in moving an audience, kind of merged and came together, and something clicked for me in a very powerful way.

How would you explain the experience and impact to someone who doesn’t have access to VR?
Immersive journalism is about putting the audience, the viewer, literally on scene. VR creates a sense of presence; your mind tricks your body into feeling like you’re actually somewhere else, and that presence brings with it a powerful empathy. Your emotional response to what you see and hear is very strong, because you feel as though you’re right there while it’s happening. In a way, it’s the very traditional goal of a certain kind of journalism; Walter Cronkite, the legendary American TV newsman, had a series called “You are There!‚Äù


“They literally got down on their knees to help him.”


What are some of the reactions you’ve noticed during or after VR sessions?
People respond very powerfully, they’re moved – to tears or to laughter – and they want more.

Tyla Mason VR Gifs

How does this reaction have an impact in your own work?
I’m a journalist, and I want to do the same thing that any good journalist does: tell important stories, in a way that brings them to life as much as possible and helps the audience find out about, or better understand, or feel more strongly about, a particular situation. VR has a unique ability to make you feel present on scene, and that in turn generates a very powerful feeling of empathy. I saw this so clearly with my first piece, Hunger in LA. It was part of a 2010 multimedia project at USC (University of Southern California), which was mostly “traditional” digital media: web, audio, video. I wanted to tell this story in VR to recreate the scene using a video game platform, with all the action driven by the real audio. Along with my intern, we began recording audio at food banks. One day a diabetic, waiting in a very long line, didn’t get his food in time and his blood sugar dropped too low, causing him to collapse and go into a coma.
People told me I was crazy to try to work in VR, and I had no budget, so I had to call in a lot of favors to get the piece made and become a better coder myself. But, amazingly, it got into the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and when we put audiences through it for the first time, the response was overwhelming: people came out in tears and, even more importantly, they reacted to the man on the ground as if he were real. They literally got down on their knees to help him. So that’s when I knew I was really onto something; that this is an empathy-generating engine like no other.

How do you think VR will or could change the way we think or behave?
In many ways. There are countless practical applications, in terms of it being the ultimate VR simulation and training tool. But there’s also a more powerful, personal, human element. The ability to create that sense of presence, and to generate empathy with the people and situations we depict, is crucial. It puts us back in touch with some of our most fundamental feelings and emotions.

Currently VR is essentially an individual experience. How do you imagine it becoming a shared experience?
I absolutely see the vast majority of current “media rooms” in homes being adapted to also facilitate VR. And in fact, as the headsets get better, you won’t even need external hardware like motion capture sensors on the walls, etc. The headset will be able to scan your surroundings and map a range of environments onto them.

Big strides have been made, but pioneers in the field are saying they’ve only just scratched the surface. Working with the medium every day, what are you beginning to see below the surface? What’s changing fastest?
It’s certainly the most exciting technical and creative development in news, and the media in general, right now. Nothing compares to that visceral sense of presence that VR can bring; we’ve seen people be so moved by the experiences that we have created, it’s clear that we’re onto something really big. As for how soon it will become mainstream; the research company, Gartner, predicts 25 million headsets in circulation by the end of 2018. That’s pretty mainstream.

GIFs by Tyla Mason


Tyla Mason VR Gifs


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